What is somatic psychotherapy?

John Moletress, MFA MA on Apr 25, 2022 in Treatment Orientation

I hear this question from folks a lot. I even asked this question myself when I was exploring a career change and moving into the counseling field. The etymology of somatic arises from the Greek sōma and sōmatikos which translates to “body.” Psychotherapy joins together from the Greek psychē meaning “soul” and therapeia meaning “treatment” (usually having to do with healing).

But what does all of that mean? My short and sweet definition of somatic psychotherapy is therapy that considers the mind, body, and transpersonal (spirit, soul) as interconnected, equal players in the human experience.

Is this different than other therapies or "talk therapy?" Yes and no. It’s pretty hard to ignore that we have a body in any modality of therapy. More “traditional” talk therapies like CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) tend to privilege thinking in a top-down approach and leave out deeper explorations of somatic experience. We are flesh, fluids, and bones, and we carry around generations of ancestral material in our DNA. Our bodies are how we make sensory contact with the world. How a touch affects us. How a smell reminds us. How a sight overwhelms us. How a sound soothes us. How a taste compels our curiosity.

Somatic psychotherapy is a bottom-up approach, which means exploring a range of issues as they arise in the body through present moment awareness, feeling-sensing-intuiting, contacting the nervous system and understanding our window of tolerance, self-regulation, discharging trauma, among other interventions and techniques.

Trauma specialist Bessel Van Der Kolk says, “Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from themselves” (Van Der Kolk, 2015, p. 97).

For LGTBQ+ folks, our body history can contain a HUGE range of feeling states — from overwhelming ecstasy to imperiled fear. Heteronormative culture and a variety of other discriminating institutions have suggested our bodies are unnatural, unclean, and unacceptable. These macro- and micro-aggressions can get stored in our body history as introjections, complicating our ability to feel vulnerability, authenticity, and freedom. Through reconnecting our mind-body-soul, we may find the freedom to fully engage with our rich, multidimensional experiences.

Van Der Kolk, B. 2015. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York, NY: Penguin.

John Moletress is a Psychotherapist in Philadelphia, PA.

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